Thursday, November 26, 2015

John Carpenter, part XVII: We sleep


The beloved class warrior classic has so much to recommend itbut not everything.

Written and directed by John Carpenter (based on the very short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson)
With "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (Nada), Keith David (Frank), Meg Foster (Holly), Peter Jason (Gilbert), Raymond St. Jacques (The Street Preacher), and George "Buck" Flower (The Drifter)

Spoiler alert: moderate

There are some movies, probably a comparative few, that find themselves dragged into greatness by almost nothing but the strength of their premiseand John Carpenter's They Live, the second deliverable of his two-picture deal with Shep Gordon's Alive Films, is maybe the clearest example of such a thing in all cinema.  Oh, it has its grace notes, to be surebut They Live remains not too much more than just one simple and provocative notion, taken to the most flabbergasting extreme it could possibly be taken.  And that notion, of course, can best be summed up in that old Fitzgeraldian misquote: "The rich are very different from you and me."

True, it turns out that this isn't the only possible reading of the film's central metaphoris it even a "metaphor" anymore, when it's this blatant?it's just that it's the only possible reading that doesn't also make the reader seem like an enormous asshole.  Oh yes, They Live has been used and terrifyingly misused as it's burrowed its way into the pop cultural overmind during the last twenty-seven years.  But the fact that it could be misused, even in bad faith, highlights the one really crucial mistake that Carpenter makes here.  And, boy, do I ever get ahead of myself.

For one thing, I've assumed that you know what I'm talking about in the first placeprobably because there's almost no chance you wouldn't, though I shouldn't make presumptions of you, dear reader.  In any event, you can rest assured: even if you've never seen They Live, you still know what They Live is about.  In fact, I expect you know it in some detail.  Nevertheless, in the unlikely case you somehow forgot:

A nameless man wanders his way into Los Angelesa little sad, a little dusty.  Listed in the credits only as "Nada," we can translate readily from the Spanish, and know he's "nothing."  Sadly, his life seems to bear that out; he scrapes his way into a construction job, and while waiting on his first paycheck, an affable co-worker named Frank guides him to a homeless encampment.

Across the street is a church.  Nada, observant fellow that he is, notes the strange comings and goings.  When he investigates further, he's struck by a cryptic graffito in the basement.  Almost as curious are the boxes he discovers, stacked behind a false wall.  But most suspicious of all must be the gospel-on-tape standing in for the church's nonexistent choirplayed to conceal the voices of the men who discuss some dire brand of anti-American radicalism in the empty nave above.

Has our two-fisted hero found himself trapped in a den of commies?

Soon, though, the police mount a vicious nighttime attack upon the camp, seemingly motivated by absolutely nothing but capital-lettered Class War.  (And, in its long tracking shots and harrowing attempt at dour realism, it's just about the most upsetting sight in Carpenter's whole filmography, The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness included.)  The police beat Nada's compatriots, scattering them to the four windsbut Nada slips through.  When he comes back the next morning, he recovers the boxes, still hidden in the church.  Opening them, he finds them full of sunglasses.  Although confused, he figures he might as well take a box for himself.  But when he puts a pair on, he realizes that he's not sleeping anymore.

The upshot, of course, is that the glasses let Nada see the world as it truly is: a colonial possession of the monstrous aliens who live among us, who have bent our economies and governments to their nefarious ends, and who beam out a hypnotic signal that cloaks not only their appearance, but the real content of the cultural artifacts they've created for us.  In other words, these magic specs make the subliminal, liminal.

Welcome to the Real America.

And They Live never once gets better than this brazen, arch-leftist first-act twistalmost everything afterward comes as something of a let-down.  The only real high point left in the whole movie is the moment when Nada finds Frank and compels him to just put on these fucking sunglassesbut only after something like six full minutes of awesomely brutal fighting.  (Many nards were crushed the day the war began.)  Still, if it's the only scene in the movie that even competes on the same level as that initial reveal, at least it competes forcefully:

Forget, just for a second, that it's simply wonderful to watch Roddy Piper and Keith David wail on each other like drunken madmenit's also an absolutely fantastic allegory for how slow, painful, and just plain difficult it can be to try to kindle the barest spark of class consciousness in some people.  Look around you (hell, maybe even look in the mirror): there are a lot of people in this stupid country who refuse with all their might to see things as they are, even when "things as they are" are so godawfully bad.

It's an amazing sceneand it's also when They Live, already kind of lurching, more-or-less just stops having anything to say.

They Live, of course, was adapted from Ray Nelson's short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," as well as the comic book story "Nada," based upon the original prose story, likewise written by Nelson, and illustrated by Bill Wray.  (It's from the comic that Carpenter draws a direct and awesome visual quote for just about the punchiest final-frame gag you'll ever see.)

In some ways, They Live's the most faithful adaptation I've ever seen outside of a Zack Snyder movie.  And this is the case even though "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" is such a short story that this review already rivals it in length.  (Even the comic version is only eight damned pages long!)  At the time of its release, the oft-repeated critical refrain was that They Live runs out of ideas and even situations around the hour markand this is very close to entirely correct.  God knows that contemporary gatekeepers rarely engaged with John Carpenter's B-pictures in good faithbut sometimes even professional film critics can have a point.

Now, don't get me wrong: it never gets boring—the lingering inherent fascination of the premise is simply too strong.  And it's hard to gainsay Carpenter's decision to fill the last half-hour with some of the 1980s' most haphazard gunplay (even when that means it really must be quite haphazard indeed, given that such bona fide super-classics as The Terminator still aren't that well-constructed in terms of their large-scale firefights).  But when They Live senses that it's time to close up shop on its story, it slips into some of the most offensively sloppy plotting of John Carpenter's whole writing career (and that must mean it gets really, really sloppy, especially when we still have Prince of Darkness and Big Trouble in Little China hanging out in our rear-view mirror).

And so, simply in comparison to the sheer entertainment value of the immaculate front hour, it's frankly a little bit limp, carried along by the goodwill engendered by Roddy Piper's goofy persona (and his pathologically-arch dialogue).  It fully livens up again only in the very last shotsNada flipping the bird to a whole compromised world, followed by that "marry and reproduce" stinger right at the end.  (And yes, I overgeneralize very slightly to make my point: after all, one of the picture's best notions only arrives in the last thirty minutes.  In They Live, global warming and pollution aren't just some byproduct of capitalism, they're the point of it, amounting to the terraformation of this planet for an alien form of lifewhile leaving it ruined for ours.  Indeed, sometimes it really does seem like we've degraded this old Earth so enthusiastically that it had to be deliberate.)

And sure, it seems impossible that I could've gotten this far into a discussion of They Live without uttering the word "capitalism," but sometimes I even surprise myself!

"Eight O'Clock in the Morning" could've easily gone the route of a sci-fi paranoid thriller, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or, if you will, Halloween III).  With so much more time to spend soaking in the paranoia, They Live almost demands it, whether the source material wanted to be that thing or not.  Yet the decision to go for balls-out action insteadthat is, to confirm "Eight O'Clock's" own gung-ho attitudeis, I'll admit, the most important element of the whole movie.  Even if, to a small degree, it breaks it.

One naturally gets a little tired of all the cowering men-who-knew-too-much that one finds in more conventional thrillers; sometimes, all one really wants is a man who's all out of bubblegum.  That's why They Live's first half especially feels so refreshing (not to say "overtly revolutionary")because the minute Nada spies the secret rulers of our world, he just picks up a gun, and starts blasting them.  And I mean it is almost literally like 60 seconds; in any event, it does not involve a lot of "coming to terms," nor does it involve "planning."  It's a little ironic, but surely well-suited to my own personal temperament, that a film this savagely critical of the culture of Reagan's America goes ahead and drinks just as deeply from the exact same cup of reflexive hyperviolence as every right-wing action movie the decade produced.

Of course, this is where They Live decisively separates itself from the short story: "Eight O'Clock" is "about" an alien infiltration, I suppose, if you believe the narrator, and "believable" is something its narrator very conspicuously fails to be.  Instead, it becomes far more a story about a man who simply has a fundamental break with reality, then goes on a killing spree.  (I mean, I'm pretty sure there's a part in it where he murders a baby.)  "Nada," the comicthough it feels more like it's depicting an objective reality than the prose story ever doesstill takes on the same first-person viewpoint.  They Live, contrary to both, is very, very obviously showing real things as they happengoing so far as to give Nada a partner in Frank, as well as a whole terrorist support crew.

And that's how They Live gets a little crumbly: in order to give Nada his shooting gallery, it blithely and rather stupidly undermines its central metaphor, indeed, its whole purpose.  Nada runs into a veritable heap of aliens, and from all walks of life: aliens who shop at the local liquor store; aliens who walk a beat for the LAPD; and, of course, aliens who work at the bankthat is, right behind the counter at the bank, perhaps earning a whole ten bucks an hour.  Yeah, they really live, all right.

Why, you often find enemies of the People making just barely over the minimum wage.

And yet They Live offers so much that's so unique that I feel a little caddish badmouthing it at allthere might be innumerable Hollywood movies that bend (center-)left, but the number that embrace this level of indiscriminate violence as a healthy purgative for the weary pinko soul amounts to a handful.

The resonance of They Live's fable can still be felt today, almost thirty years onand still seen, too, in every corner of the Internet.  Indeed, for as long as there's even one person on this planet who feels oppressed and deceived, Carpenter's elegant and iconic representation of that feeling will probably never die.  No, no, it'll never die: instead, it'll be eternally repurposed by lunatics and class-A morons, the sort of folks who adopt They Live's style to visualize how the Evil Government subliminally induces you to "GET VACCINES," or who write articles about how very well they feel They Live describes the Zionist Occupied Government.  (I especially love it when they don't mention it till halfway through their essay!  I mean, God, if you're going to be anti-Semitic, at least don't bury the lede.)

It's awfully unfair to blame Carpenter for people who'd just find some other way to be crazy, thoughand They Live is certainly of sufficient power to jam their signal.  It obviously never jammed the real adversary'sBut hey, where there are sunglasses, there's hope.

Score:  8/10


  1. This is the movie that pretty much changed Shannon's life. It's so effervescently zany while still holding obviously strong political commentary, it's kind of like a microcosm of genre movies.

    Also I like how you have a tag for "class war." I'd expect nothing less from you.

    1. I remember Shannon saying words to that effect. She walked into it a bit cold, didn't she? It's one of those movies that I really wish I'd gotten to watch without knowing pretty much exactly what it was about before I ever got ahold of the DVD.